Last week the U. S. celebrated its 240th birthday. Today, we hear a lot about erosion of the middle class and wages being suppressed but what about the average, everyday colonist in 1776. What was important, what was work like for them and how much was the average person making?
According to labor history on the website of the U. S. Department of Labor, the major industries were farming, fishing and other sea-based activities. There were some specialized craft workers that were, of course, necessary for daily life. In Virginia , some of these crafts were blacksmithing, carpentry, and basketmaking.
Some colonists may have received wages but it doesn’t mean the work was always steady. Those who were skilled such as journeymen may have received wages, food and shelter but they also worked under multiple year contracts. Some never were able to have their own business.
According to the book, Colonial Americans at Work, by Herbert Applebaum, work was more social instead of an economic gain. Although very little is known about wages or situations related to work in colonial time, the work people did was to take care of themselves and their homes. Work and morals were closely linked. Work for economic gain was viewed more of a disruption to society. People thought it was being too materialistic. There was concern by some before the Revolutionary War there would be a loss of community appeal and spiritualism if work became more of an economic need.
Work in the colonies had other social implications. It helped to reduce unemployment and reduce prison populations in Britain. Workers in early America were also convicts who were released from British prisons so the British would not have to take care of them. Another group of workers were the very poor from Britain. Because there were so many in England without jobs, the poor were encouraged to go to the colonies because there was a need for workers. Workers also came from other countries but many of them were skilled craftsman.
Unfortunately, those who warned about the problems with mixing work and economic gain were right. Much has been made about the slave trade in the southern colonies but there were those who were indentured servants. The DOL website says when a ship landed in New York it contained a number of Irish indentured servants who said they had been kidnapped.
Others came from Britain and were under contract for multiple years. Wages may have been paid but many received food, clothing, shelter and transportation from Britain. Once the contract was met, some indentured servants received clothing and food and were free to go. It depended on the servant’s master as to the working conditions for indentured servants. They were considered a master’s property and could be sold. Some were not treated well. Some had difficulty adapting to a different climate, and many did not live long enough to meet their contractual obligations.
Attitudes about work as an economic need changed even more after the Revolutionary War. Once colonists realized independence from Great Britain also meant independence from the goods and services they depended on did they realize the economic impact. It meant the items they relied on to bring comfort would not be available.
In the post-Revolutionary War period, workers begin to resist and it appears for economic reasons. Instead of living by social need, economics was starting to take over. In 1791, according to the AFL-CIO website, the building trades people struck for a 10-hour day and three years later, in 1794, shoemakers started to form a trade union. The earliest protest that is known occurred in 1768 in New York. Journeymen in the tailor industry went on strike for their wages being lowered.
What’s interesting is how the meaning of work evolved in America. Before the Revolutionary War, work was more about social or society gains. Maybe it was about average people making or building to meet their everyday needs or maybe it was about giving more meaning to people with nothing or reforming people. Those who believed combining work with economics was not good were very smart. Maybe they saw how economic wealth in early America led to inequality as shown in this article. The 60% of colonists in the article who lacked wealth were unable to have a say or make improvements to their everyday life. Maybe they saw how humans could be taken advantage as cheap labor, and in some cases, abused.
So what do you think about the caution from early colonists on the relationship between wealth, economics and work as being bad? Think about those who had indentured servants or slaves? Is that an example of what happens when economics and work are combined? Think about those who had the ability to be self-sufficient and used their work as a social means in early colonial days. Think about how it would be today. Would things be different today if we put more social emphasis on work than economic emphasis? Have we progressed or are things the same as early colonial days? Would we be happier?
Applebaum, Herbert A.(1996). Colonial Americans at Work. Lanham, MD; New York, NY; London, England: University Press of America